Stalin’s Last Crime
Sergei Kudryahov reviews two titles on the Soviet Union and its leadership struggles.
Khrushchev: The Man and His Era
Simon & Schuster 876 pp. £25 ISBN 0-7432-3165-1
Stalin’s Last Crime: The Doctors’ Plot
Jonathan Brent, Vladimir P. Naumov
John Murray 399 pp. £20 ISBN 0-7195-5448 9
American professor William Taubman originally intended to write a book on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s foreign policy, but became absorbed in him as a personality, and decided instead to write a biography. This epic work occupied him for fifteen years, and judging by the resulting text and its sources (the appendices and bibliography account for almost 200 pages), his efforts have resulted in a well-written and balanced biography of one of the most contradictory political figures of the twentieth century. The book is also the first detailed biography of Khrushchev in English.
Taubman was fortunate in that a number of archives held in Russia and Ukraine were opened after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and that documents on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that had not long ago been secret were now available to historians. The author had the opportunity to interview Khrushchev’s relatives and various Soviet political figures of that era, as well as working with the original recordings of Khrushchev’s memoirs, which he had himself dictated onto tape.
Taubman devotes eight chapters to the first period of Khrushchev’s career, during which he goes from being an ordinary worker to becoming a member of the Politburo and a colleague of Stalin. It is to the author’s credit that he makes no claims to knowing all there is to know, and he repeatedly points out that many points remain unclear despite the wealth of materials available, particularly with regard to Khrushchev’s participation in the Stalinist repressions and his role in the catastrophic defeat of the Red Army in the spring of 1942. It is possible that this has something to do with Khrushchev’s attempts to dispose of any compromising documents during his lifetime. It is more than likely that we will only get more accurate answers to these questions when the most important collection of documents pertaining to Soviet history, namely those in the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU’s archive (currently presided over by the administration of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin), are declassified.
Khrushchev’s activities as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU (and de facto leader of the USSR) from 1953 are divided across twelve of the book’s chapters. The emphasis on this period is not difficult to understand, for it was precisely during the period 1953-64 that Khrushchev took his place on the world stage. Taubman recounts all of his subject’s most significant dealings, both in terms of foreign and domestic policy. He successfully combines an academic approach with an accessible style. The book grips the imagination, is a pleasure to read, and there are times when one even forgets that this is an academic biography, and not an historical novel. The author deserves great credit for his determination to avoid arriving at simple conclusions. He neither judges Khrushchev, nor engages in any sarcastic asides when dealing with his more eccentric or vulgar escapades. He tries to penetrate into the psychology of the Soviet leader, to understand the motives behind his actions. Khrushchev comes across as a contradictory and complex character, ambitious and energetic, irascible and direct, while also being capable of rudeness and brutality. In addition to all this, he was extremely vulnerable and sentimental. All his life, Khrushchev was ashamed that he had not received a proper education, and feared that he might appear stupid in the presence of those who had. The reader cannot remain untouched either by Khrushchev’s own personal drama. On achieving power, he broke up the existing Politburo, which had been staffed by his former sidekicks, and put an end to the cult of Stalin. He also brought a new, young generation of party bureaucrats to power, and it was this group that removed him from all official posts in the autumn of 1964. Reduced to the status of an ordinary pensioner, and yet still under constant surveillance, Khrushchev found himself cut off from those around him. His wife and family did what they could to make life bearable, but his loneliness remained. Towards the end of his life he would often sit on a bench at his dacha, staring into space and weeping.
By a cruel twist of fate, Khrushchev was doomed to share the experience of Boris Pasternak, whose novel, Doctor Zhivago , had been published in the West. At the time, Khrushchev had vented his spleen on the writer, accusing him of betraying his country, but ten years later, faced with no alternative, Khrushchev’s memoirs too were published in the West, and he was duly subjected to scathing criticism from the party leadership.
Khrushchev’s unique character will long continue to be a source of interest to academics, but Taubman’s book will remain one of the most significant works on the subject for many years to come.
Stalin’s Last Crime has been presented as a new, widely documented piece of research, and ‘the most detailed picture of Stalin’s Kremlin ever produced’. The book does present a version of events occurring in the Soviet Union between 1947 and 1953, but the text itself and the authors’ logic and methodology gives no cause for us to agree with these claims.
The authors present Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot as something that would have been the Soviet version of the Nazis’ Final Solution, but are unable to produce convincing arguments or new documentation to support this view. Moreover, none of the existing materials in Russian archives give credence to the idea that Stalin was planning anything resembling the Holocaust.
The book gives voice to old clichés concerning the Soviet system. The authors attempt to prove that the plot against Jewish doctors was a logical step in the evolution of the regime, but it is not clear why they regard all the doctors as being Jewish, nor why actions taken against Jews in particular should be regarded as the culmination of events. No less hackneyed is the idea that Stalin’s Terror touched practically all the nationalities of the former USSR, and that, for example, Chechens, Latvians, Ukrainians and Russians suffered to no lesser degree than the Jews. The authors are unable to explain why Stalin’s repression of a number of Jews should be regarded as any particular kind of stage in the development of the Soviet regime. If the head of the Kremlin was gripped by antisemitic sentiment, why did he appoint Jews to prominent posts? Kaganovich and Mekhlis, both Jews, played the most active of roles in Stalin’s Terror.
In recent times it has become the trend in the West to make references to the Presidential Archive of the Russian Federation. This is a closed archive to which foreigners are not allowed access. Russian researchers are only permitted to examine some of the documents when they have made concrete enquiries. One of the book’s authors, Vladimir Naumov, did have the opportunity to become acquainted with certain documents in his role as a member of the Presidential Commission on the Rehabilitation of Repressed Persons. But prior to publication, all documents from the Presidential Archive are declassified, as are documents held in the archives of the former KGB. The book’s authors, therefore, were dealing with materials that had already been declassified, but offer no details of the files from which they are taken. The authors claim to be breaking new ground, but without relevant footnotes it is impossible to check their veracity or accuracy, and they offer no kind of criticism of the sources used in the book.
Had this book been presented as a popular exposition of well-known facts, it would not have deserved such criticism; but the claims made for the book’s reliability and the authors’ knowledge must be judged in their own terms.
Sergei Kudryahov is the editor of Istochnik in Russia.
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